Accepted paper:

When the Mountain Broke: The Politics of Disaster Response in Sierra Leone


Samantha Melis (International Institute of Social Studies)
Dorothea Hilhorst (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Paper short abstract:

The article shows how a disaster crystalized intra-state political strife. It uncovers the complexity of a state led response in practice, dissecting the concept of the state and providing insight into the impact of disasters on the internal politics of the state on different state levels.

Paper long abstract:

On 14 August 2017, Sugarloaf Mountain in Sierra Leone 'broke'. The ensuing mudslide and floods swept through a densely populated area in Freetown, killing over 1.000 people and affecting thousands within minutes. This disaster hit a country still recovering from a decade-long civil war that ended in 2002 and a two-year Ebola epidemic that lasted until 2016. The response to the mudslide and floods crystallized intra-state politics, not only on a national level, but also between the national and local state levels. On national level, the authority between state institutions was disputed. While policies were clear about the roles and responsibilities, they had to be negotiated in practice. As the post-conflict period is rife with institutional changes, the state institutions competed for their role in the response. On the community level, each actors' role in the response was negotiated between the chiefs and the state institutions. As a state structure that derives its power from an hierarchical and patriarchic direction, the chief's authority was partly compromised by the overtaking presence of the national state on the local level. However, their societal role was stronger. The way the chiefs were able to gather support from their community members either strengthened or weakened their authority. The politics of disaster response therefore uncovered and intensified the contention within and between state institutions. The article is based on four months of qualitative fieldwork from September 2017 to January 2018, that included 93 semi-structured interviews with various state, aid and societal actors.

panel Pol23
Emergenc(i)es: Disruptive events and their consequences in African politics